Restaurant review: Return of chef Gabriel Fratini

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Oct 27, 2013 

Those of us with long enough memories may remember Gabriel Fratini, the garrulous Italian chef who came to Singapore in the late 1980s as the chef of Domvs in Sheraton Towers and later opened two Italian restaurants, Fratini La Trattoria in Neil Road and the more upmarket Fratini Il Ristorante in Ngee Ann City.

Well, he's back, after spending the last two decades away - first in Japan, Indonesia and Australia, and then in Italy with his Singaporean wife and two children. The move is partly triggered by the fact that his 19-year-old son, now studying in Italy, may return to Singapore soon to serve national service.

His new Fratini La Trattoria opened in Greenwood Avenue early this month, but it is a totally revised version. Where the 1980s trattoria offered traditional, rustic Italian cooking, the new eatery has a no-menu concept that allows the chef to exercise his creativity and show how far he has come.

Well, there is a menu, a short one, but according to him, he doesn't show it to diners and no customer has asked for it.

Instead, everyone goes for his $70 tasting menu, which features 12 items - some bite-sized, some bigger - of whatever the chef decides to cook that day.

So did I, at my dinner there last week. And there are no regrets, as I get to taste a variety of dishes and most are excellent.

Familiar Italian dishes are taken apart and reconstructed in a different way, but even straightforward items such as pasta are given a modern, lighter touch.

Fratini does the marketing every morning, loading his Vespa with bags of seafood to be used that day. This means that you may not get the same dishes I did, but you can be assured that the food is fresh.

That is why the grilled prawns in my pasta with crabmeat are so sweet, something you never get with frozen seafood. I also like that they are deliberately undercooked, so they remain succulent and do not get hard and dry.

The fresh tagliatelle, tossed with a generous amount of crabmeat and chopped vegetables, is one of my favourite dishes for its light yet tasty flavours.

But there are plenty more dishes that I will gladly eat again, such as a diced salmon and zucchini tartare drizzled with olive oil and balsamico, and laced with a wisp of truffle oil.

Or the octopus and potato with tuna sauce, a combination of flavours and textures that is so pleasing in the mouth. Or even the simple but delicious omelette with Parmesan cheese that is made with only egg yolk.

The beef carpaccio is a surprise, as the meat is sliced thick and lightly seared. Traditional carpaccio is made with paper-thin slices of raw beef. But this way, the flavour comes out better as you chew on the meat, says Fratini. And it works for me, because it is really juicy. The mascarpone sauce is great with the beef too.

Even the tiramisu is not left alone. While the dessert of sponge fingers, mascarpone cheese and coffee topped with cocoa powder is not changed, it is served in a pretty nest made with spun sugar. And eating the sugar with the finger adds a caramel flavour to the dessert.

Fratini has also come up with a new dessert called gelato pudding. What looks like a small cake is filled with gelato and a whole cherry in the centre, moistening the crumbly frozen pastry and adding a refreshing acidity.

Throughout dinner, the chef walks round the tables to chat with diners, joking and teasing. When he gets some encouragement, things can get pretty boisterous and there is a hilarious moment at my dinner when a customer at the next table is told to "shut up and eat". It feels like being at a home party with friends, especially since the food just keeps coming.

I am too engrossed with eating to count during dinner but when I look at the list of items later, I realise there are 13 of them. And there could have been more if I had not thrown in the towel.

"Tell me if you can eat some more," the chef says before serving dessert. I can't at the time - but I'd certainly like to go back for more.

ahyoke@sph.com.sg

SundayLife! paid for its meals at the eateries reviewed here.